June 20, 2013
A Conversation With Albert Speer
Posted on Aug 3, 2011
Excerpted from “Witness to an Extreme Century” by Robert Jay Lifton. Copyright 2011 by Robert Jay Lifton. Excerpted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, in his memoir “Witness to an Extreme Century,” interviews Albert Speer about his 15 years as a prominent Nazi and “Hitler’s architect.”
Three of our four meetings took place at his home on the outskirts of Heidelberg, and the fourth at his isolated retreat in southern Bavaria. His Heidelberg home seemed isolated enough, high in the hills behind the city’s famous castle. I remember the house seeming cavernous, its furnishings neither attractive nor cozy. Speer himself was welcoming but I was struck by how old he looked (he was then seventy-three), by the awkwardness of his movements (he had considerable difficulty getting up and sitting down, leading me to wonder whether he had Parkinson’s disease), and by his “thousand-mile stare” (the term we used to describe the psychological remoteness in repatriated American prisoners of war in Korea in 1953). The word I used to characterize his general demeanor was weary (though I should add that a little more than a year later he was to be enlivened by a passionate love affair with a younger woman).
Speer was interested in talking to me, and made clear that nothing he said was confidential. But he quickly suggested an agenda of his own centered on his bond with Hitler. He told me how he had heard the Nazi leader speak at his university in Berlin in 1930, was “really spellbound” at the time and remained so for the next fifteen years covering the entire Nazi era. His question for me was how, in retrospect, he could have been so enthralled by such a man. He then made a startling proposal: that he undergo psychotherapy with me in order to better understand how that had happened. The strong implication was that the relationship still had a hold on him, from which he wanted to extricate himself. I was much interested in hearing more about his conflict but had no wish to take on responsibility for his psyche. I needed my freedom as a researcher and did not see my task as one of easing the pain of a prominent former Nazi. Nor did I wish to have our meetings structured around his way of framing his problem. So I suggested instead that we explore in some detail his relationship with Hitler without my becoming his therapist. Speer agreed and we did so, but we were able to explore much else that enabled me to relate this strange bond to larger questions of evil and knowledge of evil, and of death and immortality.
Speer explained that the speech that had so moved him was Hitler’s relatively intellectual and historical treatment of German history, as opposed to his more demagogic, rabble-rousing street version. The narrative was one of revitalization: now Germany is weak and everything seems hopeless but by uniting behind Hitler and the National Socialist movement – and above all renouncing the guilt for World War I assigned by the Versailles Treaty – Germany and its people can once again be strong. Speer was then a twenty-five-year-old instructor in architecture in a collapsed economy and he and others around him were experiencing only despair about their future. Images of … humiliated German troops returning from World War I twelve years earlier were still fresh in his mind, as were postwar scenes of every kind of social chaos. Hitler’s words were for him transformative, a message of new hope and a promise, as he put it, that “all can be changed” and “everything is possible.” Feeling “drunk from the talk,” Speer walked for hours through the woods outside Berlin, seeking to absorb what he had heard. He was in the process of experiencing a secular form of a classical religious conversion, described by William James as “perceiving truths not known before” that enable a “sick soul” to “give itself over to a new life.” Intense “self-surrender” is accompanied by new spiritual strength. Speer demonstrated the emerging power of the combination of national and personal revitalization, which I came to see as the psychological core of Nazi appeal throughout the German population.
Speer joined the Nazi Party soon after that speech and told me of his rapid rise within tis circles, first as an enthusiastic party worker and then as an architect. From his sensational early success in designing the light and space for the large Nuremberg rallies, beginning in 1933 (as depicted by Leni Riefenstahl in her film of the 1934 rally, Triumph of the Will), he progressed to the planning of vast buildings, even cities, to extol the omnipotent Nazi regime and, above all, its Fuhrer. He emphasized how, in becoming “Hitler’s architect,” he was drawn toward a vision of personal immortalization, of “having a place in future history books,” “building for eternity,” and becoming in that way “someone who is surviving his own life.” The sense of immortality, which I emphasize in my work, intoxicated Speer to the point of becoming something close to a promise of literally living forever. So grandiose were the projections he and Hitler made together that some of the buildings were to hold as many as 150,000 people on vast balconies in a new Berlin that would become the center of the world, dwarfing the grandeur of Paris and the Champs-Elysees. Few of the structures were actually built but many were imagined, as part of what Speer called “a daydream that was a very serious daydream.”
On one of my visits to the Heidelberg home, he showed me a large glossy book that had just been published, titled Architecture of the Third Reich. It contained gaudy photographs of buildings I noted to be “profoundly vulgar” and “totalitarian,” and Speer seemed initially to share that judgment: “I admit that the proportions are all wrong,” he said, and “I criticize the grandiose side.” Then, without the slightest trace of irony, he added, “But of course it was what the client wanted.” He attributed all excess to that “client,” but he could hardly dissociate himself from the grandiosity involved. Indeed, his pride in the volume was clear enough as he clutched it affectionately and pointed also to pictures of rally sites he had designed: “I was one of the first to use light in nighttime as a device for creating space. The searchlights came so high that when you were standing inside you saw it as being in the stratosphere.” He did not say that his innovative lighting enabled the Fuhrer to be seen as descending from the heavens. I thought of Speer’s overall contribution to the mystical appeal of the Nazi movement, converting Nazi darkness into a manipulated sense of illumination. Witnessing his enthusiasm for that early work and his nostalgic pride in projections of architectural world domination, I felt that whatever sympathy I had for Speer was dissolving. It occurred to me that Nazi architectural hubris had a certain parallel to its biological hubris: apocalyptic architecture followed upon apocalyptic biology.
Speer made it clear that Hitler was more than a mere client: he was the closest of collaborators. Hitler was not only a constant critic and appreciator of Speer’s architectural suggestions; the Fuhrer became himself an architect and even provided sketches of his own. As they imagined the unprecedented grandeur of buildings, highways, archways, and cities, their thoughts blended to the degree that it became unclear who had provided the original idea. The two men shared this descent into a version of apocalyptic fantasy: they were re-creating a perfect Nazi world from the ruins of what they were destroying. It is this merger in fantasy that constituted their architectural folie a deux.
Yet however superior Speer’s knowledge of architecture, Hitler remained the guru. As Speer put it, “I was so much in that ambience that I was infiltrated with [Hitler’s] ideas without realizing how much I was infiltrated.” He said that even now, when working on his writing, he frequently has the experience in which “I see that it’s an idea Hitler had in some way” and “I’m quite astonished.” In their particular fashion, the two men formed a close personal relationship. Speer would later write that if Hitler were capable of having a friend, he, Speer, would have been that friend. But gurus, especially the most paranoid and destructive among them, do not have friends; they have only disciples. Speer believed that Hitler was drawn to him as a fellow artist, and that appreciation worked both ways: “For an artist to see somebody at the head of the state who is something of an artist too … has a gift of excitement. Being overwhelmed by … a Wagner performance or a ballet in Nuremberg, this for me was a strong, positive influence.” They also shared an intense theatricality – Speer with his dazzling night-lighting of rallies, and Hitler, whose “whole life,” Speer told me, “was acting, performance, theatre.”
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